A Defiant Worship: What Shark Week teaches me about God/dess

Shark Week finished up recently.  If you don’t know, Shark Week is a week-long series dedicated to sharks on the Discovery Channel.  It’s been running for 26 years, making it the longest running TV event in history.  It is very popular.  I didn’t watch any of it, but on the last day of Shark Week, I did coincidentally find myself in the Chicago Field Museum with my kids watching a 3D documentary about great white sharks.  The film had a conservationist bent, but it still impressed on me how dangerous these animals are.  The message of the film was: sharks need not be feared, but they should be respected.

Watching footage of great whites attacking dummy seals reminded me of a passage from Moby Dick in which Melville describes a pod of sharks feasting on the carcass of a sperm whale.  He sums up: “If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil.”  As a Jungian, I read invocations of the devil like this as references to the dark side of God/dess or Nature.  Watching the great whites sharks, the dark side of nature is evident to me; and since nature is my god, I see the dark side of God/dess in sharks.

Darwin has a similar sentiment: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars,” he wrote.  The key word there is “beneficent”.  A god who is wholly beneficent could not have created great white sharks.  But God/dess is not wholly beneficent.  The lions are not lying down with the lambs.  God/dess is also maleficent.   Sometimes God/dess wants to kill you.  I had a profound sense of this recently while watching the movie, The Impossible, while based on a true story about a family that survives the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand.  If the Old Testament is testament to anything it is to God’s dark side, as are a multitude of stories of pagan gods: the climax of Euripides Bacchae is as violent as any shark attack.

From the film, “The Impossible” (2012)

Shortly after seeing the shark documentary, I read a post by Joseph Bloch at PaganSquare entitled, “Mine is not a religion of peace.”  Bloch is a Heathen (and a Libertarian) and so his is not a religion of pacifism.  On the one hand, I have never embraced the Wiccan Rede (“Do what you will, so long as it harms none.”) or the Threefold Law of Return.  On the other hand, neither do I share Bloch’s warrior values.  I like civilization too much.  But I do appreciate Bloch’s challenge to hegemony of harmony in Pagan discourse.  There is a lot of talk in Paganism about harmonizing ourselves with nature and its rhythms.  But how do we harmonize ourselves with a nature that is both Dea Nutrix (the nourishing goddess) and the “sow that eats her farrow”, both the Good Mother and the Devouring Mother?  Is surrender the only path that Paganism offers?

There’s a story that I’ve heard told in Pagan contexts about a deer that lays down its life voluntarily to the hunters.  I’ve never hunted a deer, but I’m pretty sure they don’t just lay down for you.  Obviously, the story is a myth; but the meaning of the myth bothers me because it denies the reality of the struggle.  Deer don’t voluntarily surrender their lives to hunters.  Neither do seals surrender to great whites.  The law of nature seems to me to be a law of struggle.  Nature compels us to fight, even — or maybe especially — when we can’t win.  There’s any idea I’ve come across in Heathenry before about fighting against your wyrd or fate.  I find this notion appealing.  I don’t mean fate in the sense of “destiny” or a denial of free will.  I see fate as an acknowledgement of the limits of free will.  The most obvious source of fate is Nature, the physical universe, including our bodies and our genes.  It seems to me that, if we are to truly honor nature, we must fight against it.  I think this is what Melville was getting at when he had Ahab shout to the lighting during a storm:

“I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. […] to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. While I earthly live, the kingly personality lives in me, and feels his royal rights. Though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee. […] defyingly I worship thee!

Indeed, the narrative of Moby Dick can be understood as the story of one man, defiantly throwing himself up against fate (in the form of the whale).  Should Ahab be our role model, then?  I think Ahab’s path is better than the path of universal harmony advocated by many Pagans.  Just because the shark is playing its part in the cycle of life does not mean that I should stop swimming for shore.  To much of Pagan talk about God/dess as loving and caring sounds to me like the one-sided (and therefore neurotically repressed) God of Christianity.  Of course, we are all part of God/dess.  But the same power that runs through each and every cell of our bodies will, in the words of Gilbert Murray, bring us bliss or tear our life to shreds without a break in its own serenity.  In my experience God/dess may love you, but She also wants to eat you.  And, as Starhawk explains, when God/dess happens then “the rivers of life-force burst the dams and it’s paddle-or-die.”

This reminds me of the movie The Grey, which I’ve written about before here.  [Warning: Spoiler Alert!]  The movie begins with a professional wolf hunter about to take his own life in despair over the death of his wife, when he is interrupted by the howling of wolves.  Later, his plane crashes and the survivors are hunted by a pack of wolves.  At the end of the movie, the hunter finds himself in the wolves’ den and he dies fighting the alpha.  But in the process, in the struggle to survive, he relearned how to live.  The movie ends with these words:

Once more into the fray

Into the last good fight I’ll ever know

Live and die on this day …

Live and die on this day … 

From the film, “The Grey” (2011)

I’m not suggesting, like Joseph Bloch, that we treat all strangers as enemies.  Nor am I saying that we need to fight each other — though there are times when that is necessary.  We have enough things to fight against already to waste energy fighting each other.  Life is a struggle for most of us.  I think the only harmony or balance to be found is when we have given everything we can, when we have thrown everything we can against the world — only then do we have the right to surrender.  We are God/dess’s prey.  In the end, we all must surrender to God/dess.  But in the meantime, let our worship be defiance.  Let us kneel in acknowledgment of all that we cannot change, and then stand in recognition of all that we can.  We earn the right to bow our heads to God/dess only after we have fought the good fight with Her.  To me, Paganism is not a religion of consolation — it is a religion of action, a religion of struggle, a religion of defiance!

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  • Kenneth Apple

    I was telling the story of the binding of the Fenris Wolf to a group of kids at my UU congregation. I talked a little bit about Odin, who seeks knowledge throughout the nine worlds, he learns of the runes, steals the mead of poetry, learns magic from female side, all to try and avert Ragnarok, which he knows is coming, which he knows he cannot avert. Why would the gods continue on in the face of that sure knowledge, and the only thing I could come up with, which I did not tell the kids, was F*** you! That’s why.

  • Thank you for a new look at it all. As you say, I think defiance is the heart of not only survival, but actual living. But psychologically, I often think most of mankind is a bit dishonest with themselves….because we take our carnivore’s feast and cook and china-plate it, we think we are not as bloody as sharks at a dead whale’s wake? Please!

    There is a kind of inevitability to all existence, but I go back again and again to “Camelot” in the closing scene….we may all be drops of water in the “sunlit sea”, but it is certainly our actions that make some of those drops sparkle!

    • True about our bloody natures. Melville also writes about the same shark scene, comparing the butchers on the deck of the ship to the sharks below: “were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties”]

      Some do sparkle indeed!

      • Long as it isn’t craft store glitter and rhinestones, right? :::winks:::

  • Mikal

    A bit of a side note, but from reading Mr. Bloch’s blog, he seems to be saying that all strangers are untrustworthy, not necessarily your enemy. Trust shouldn’t be something given without good cause, and with how many people carry themselves these days, I fully agree. I loved the Grey as well, that movie summed up your points here perfectly IMO.

    • True. However, I think there’s a difference between waiting for a stranger to prove themselves trustworthy and saying “that strangers are fundamentally untrustworthy.”

      • Mikal

        As I’ve learned in civilian life and in combat unfortunately, erring on the side of caution concerning whether a stranger intends to do you or yours harm will keeping you breathing just a bit longer, so I have to respectfully disagree with you here.

        • Shoot first ask questions later? In a war zone, maybe. But in a Florida suburb? I have to disagree with you there. It’s not a recipe for a civil society.

          • Mikal

            Never shot first, but that didn’t mean I walked around with a unloaded weapon either. Being cautious doesn’t really mean popping off rounds randomly at the first hint of trouble. From what I’ve heard about Florida, nobody walks around unarmed either it seems, given their “We’re batshit crazy” state motto.

  • Perhaps such defiance is part of our human nature. It’s our fate to fight our fate.

  • Really interesting post. I’m not crazy about thinking about such things in light/dark or surrender/fight dichotomies though. Why is the shark eating its prey the “dark side” of nature? It’s certainly not dark for the shark. The fact that nature has provided it with an abundance of food is a very good thing. I’m not “fighting against” anything by living my life and working to stay alive (whether that means eating my veggies or getting the hell out of the way for a hurricane)–I’m *working with* and *adapting to* the reality of how nature works. We’re all food for something else eventually, otherwise you simply can’t have complex life forms. Nothing “dark” there, just the reality that makes the biosphere possible.

    • Thanks Nicole. I don’t mean any moral judgment by my use of the word “dark”. “Dark” could just be understood as a reference to the chthonic. It is what Camile Paglia calls the Dionysian: “It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the muck and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from our consciousness to retain our Apollonion integrity as persons.”

      • Meh. 🙂 I know what you mean about wanting to avoid value judgments, but I still have a problem with seeing biology and geology as “brutality” or “dehumanizing,” and there’s nothing wasteful about bloodshed if it means someone (human or otherwise) gets to eat. Squalor and rot are necessary to create the soil that feeds new plants that feed new life. The fact that none of it is about us, and that a lot of it is threatening to us, isn’t something to get all depressed about, it’s just nature doing its thing. Why on earth (so to speak :)) do we have to make these strict light/dark Apollo/Chthonic dichotomies to describe our position in nature? It all seems to me like a way to continue insisting that humans are or should be above it all somehow. Here’s one of my favorite essays that takes a different perspective, if you’re interested (you’ll have to click through to the Word file): http://kurungabaa.net/2011/01/18/being-prey-by-val-plumwood/

        • I agree with all you say — and what Val Plumwood says in her essay, “Being Prey” (Great piece by the way! Thanks for sharing the link.) — about humans being a part of nature and nature just doing its thing. But the bloodshed and rot are antithetical to civilization (represented by Apollo in Paglia’s language). This is what I think Paglia means by “dehumanizing”. Civilization includes everything from agriculture to vaccines to art to philosophy. They are all a product of human struggle against nature, to bend it to our will, just as surely as Val Plumwood struggled against that crocodile to save her own life. As much as we would like to romanticize agricultural societies, the truth is that historically farmers have seen nature as the enemy. And while we might think about science as somehow “working with” nature, the reality is that the progress of science has been a very “masculinist” process of divide and conquer.

          We humans now have the amazing ability to take the wider perspective, to think globally, to put ourselves in the shoes of the shark or the crocodile. But that ability is a luxury that is the product of thousands of years of the development of civilization. And in that sense, we are “above it”. We have the luxury of getting outside of our own species-centric/self-centric perspective because of modern agriculture and vaccines and all the rest of it. But if it ever comes down to just me and the shark, none of that will matter one bit.

          You say “I’m not ‘fighting against’ anything by living my life and working to stay alive.” But that I think is the real denial of nature. You fight against bacteria and viruses to stay healthy. The older you get, the more you will fight against entropy and decline. Even the food you eat is the product of struggle, struggle to cultivate plants and the struggle entailed in slaughtering even the most domesticated of animals. (And for a lot of people, “getting the hell out of the way of a hurricane” is a struggle.) And that’s just the physical struggle. There’s the psychological struggle too. This is the “dark” side of nature, in contrast to the “light” of civilization. It is the side that we like to hide from our conscious sight. And even we Pagans do it when we think nature will always be cooperative.

  • Living The Wheel

    That trend we see in Paganism that says we should just live in harmony is a condition. It’s a condition of taking far too many things in life for granted. You most likely wouldn’t have heard anyone of a pagan religion spouting that hundreds of years ago. That notion came with industrialization. We got lazy and we forgot, as a society, how nature works.

    I’ve railed on this before on other blogs I’ve done. You see it all the time with any type of radical ideology in conservationism. The most recent example I could give are the wolves in Yellowstone. People were killing them and they were dying out, because they had been attacking livestock etc. So, the conservationist got involved and now they have so many wolves that there isn’t enough food for them and they’re straying out of their normal boundaries and attacking livestock and people again. They are not content to allow the food chain to work and they’re still preaching against killing the wolves.

    People often forget that nature is about balance and one side against the other. You can not preserve one side without affecting the other side, you must let nature take it’s course. But, you also have to realize that once it becomes an issue of survival of the fittest, humans are usually going to fight back and win, at a price, naturally. It’s a delicate ecosystem we live in, one based on balance. You can not have light without dark. There is no universal acceptance and there shouldn’t be. There is no universal peace and there never will be.

    Part of the reason that I find it so hard to interact with pagan communities at large is the notion that we must bow down, lay down, and be “light”.

    • I couldn’t have said it better myself. The implications of an ethic of defiance for environmental issues is complex, as you point out.

  • I don’t have anything to add, you’ve expressed this beautifully. I love your conclusion of conflating worship with defiance. Although the destructive God/dess is an integral part of my practice, I hadn’t really thought about it this way before.

  • Hermes60

    For me. “living in harmony” is not about being at peace with everyone and everything. Living in harmony is being aware of and living in tune with the cycles life. It is being aware of the nature of what is around you. When you are near a great white, knowing its nature as a apex predator means taking whatever means of avoiding its notice or getting out of its way.

    Living it harmony is “trust but verify”.

    Living in harmony is NOT building on a flood plain just because it is a grand vista.
    Living in harmony is dressing for the weather of the seasons.
    Living in harmony is accepting what cannot be changed without complaint AFTER you have tried everything possible.
    Living in harmony is setting and enforcing realistic personal boundaries.
    Living in harmony is not looking for trouble but also not avoiding trouble when it is unavoidable.

    • That’s a great list! I have never seen it articulated that way. Thanks.

  • As someone who lives in the woods and bears daily witness to the lives and deaths and fights and beauty and struggles of the creatures around me, when I read things about pagans having beautiful visions of “wolves and lambs lying down together,” I have to actually laugh. That is NOT how nature works. So, I identified with your sentence, “Nature compels us to fight…” I think we often glamorize nature or the lives of animals somehow (I’ve seen pagan writers claim that animals are more “compassionate” and “loving” than humans–while I would not dispute the failures in compassion regularly experienced by human beings, nor can I romanticize the “compassion” exhibited by the opossum who strung my favorite chicken’s entrails all over the chicken coop, seemingly for no reason other than to have enjoyed killing it). Anyway, while it isn’t necessarily that connected, some of your thoughts in this post remind me of my recent musings in my Birth Warrior post on Feminism and Religion. In the comments, I quickly learned that “warrior” is *not* a popular term to apply to women or to use even in a feminist context. But, as I also was finally able to explore in the comments as well, I see an awful lot of “warrior” mothers in nature…

    • Thanks for your thoughts Molly. I’m surprised to hear that you had a negative reaction to the term “warrior” among feminists. I guess that reflects the division in feminism between radical and cultural feminists. I do think it’s possible for women to reclaim the term without adopting the patriarchal baggage that comes with the term.

  • Wriggly

    Have you read Blood Rites: the origins of the passions of war by Barbara Erleich? She has a chapter about the darker side of religion and where these impulses might come from. It’s very interesting.